Epiphany 1 St Petri 12/01/2014
At Home in a Company of Servants
Text: (Matt 3:13-17; Phil 2:1-13)
Several of the families in our street decorated their houses with lights over the Christmas season. We didn’t put any on our house this year, because we didn’t want to draw any attention to our front yard, which looks like a bit of a building site at the moment! We had lights inside, though, especially on the Christmas tree, which gives a real festive look to a home. Lights are nice, aren’t they? Candles on the dinner table, candles on the altar… lights in the garden, bright displays in shop windows, displays at the Hindmarsh Brewery, and spotlights on the heritage buildings on North Terrace. Lights are used to brighten things up, of course also to attract our attention and sell us stuff, but that’s life.
We can be so caught up in these spectacles that we forget the basic purpose of light – to help us see! In the dark, there is much that we cannot see, or see wrongly, and we can easily find ourselves disoriented. I’m sure you have had that sense at one time or another, and psychologists tell us that some people get into that sort of hole especially at times like Christmas, when the lights are brightest and most starkly show up the darkness of their lives, when grief and loneliness are made even more painful by the celebrations of others.
So a light to the nations could be a mixed blessing, and indeed is, was, has been. God has always had in mind that all nations would experience his love in a dynamic way, and so he put a light out for the nations to find their way to him. A covenant , a relationship, of faith and love, embodied in a people called for that purpose – a servant nation. Yes, Israel was a light to the rest of the nations, so that all could see the amazing grace of God and come to faith in him, so that they could find a light for their path back to the one who had created them.
It didn’t work out as well as God had hoped, so he sent prophets, messengers like Isaiah, to remind Israel of her purpose and to move forward his plan to give purpose and hope to the whole earth. In the end he came himself, in flesh, and that’s the story we have been celebrating again this Christmas. Jesus, light to the nations, the new Israel who would not fail to provide the light needed for all.
And so Jesus comes to the Jordan to be baptized. What is going on here? He is part of a large crowd, by the way. Many people had come out either to criticize or to be baptized. Criticize comes naturally, but why baptized, I wonder? Baptism was for non-Jews who wanted to become Jews. Did they have a sense of guilt, perhaps, and feel the need for re-inclusion? Did they think it might earn them credits with God? Did they want to connect with the latest religious guru and perhaps tap into some sort of spiritual power? We are not told. But whatever they may have come for, they ended up witnesses to something else again.
Why do you think Jesus wanted to be baptized? John couldn’t work it out, and tried to change places with him! He was working in the old order thinking, I guess, and saw baptism as a sign of repentance, whereas Jesus was there for something else. He was there to fulfil all righteousness! God’s whole plan for drawing the world back into fellowship with the Trinity was being launched here. This is Jesus’ commissioning service. Good grief! That set John back on his feet – whatever you reckon, he said, and I hope you know what you are doing!
As John was pouring water on Jesus’ head, suddenly there’s light everywhere – the skies open to reveal the glory of God, a voice was seen (behold, look!) and Jesus, at least, saw the Spirit of God hovering over him like a dove. The voice utters the Word of God that begins a new creation. Two words joined together in the very person of Jesus.
This is my beloved Son – a word from the coronation rituals, where David and his successors are addressed as God’s own Son and given authority to rule. And then “I am well-pleased with him”, straight from our first reading today, that ancient song of the suffering servant.
Jesus is commissioned here as Messiah, the Christ, the anointed king of Israel, but with a tweak – this king would not be a conquering field marshal, summoning up legions of angels to destroy the wicked, as many in Israel of that time hoped. He would not be a king wallowing in wealth at the expense of his people, as many would have preferred – appearances can be very important. Nor would he be amassing the wealth of the nations for Israel to enjoy – another fond hope of the day. He would not be a king who specializes in giving orders, making laws and punishing evil-doers. He ushered in a new order based on forgiveness.
This is a king with a difference – so different that we almost need to use quotation marks around the word “king” when we apply it to him. For he was to be a servant of all. He would suffer at the hands of those who exercised power that he refused to exercise. He would die, really die, for the restoration of fellowship (righteousness) between God and humanity, between God and the whole of creation. In his servant body this servant king would be executed like a common criminal and buried like the rest of us. The story doesn’t finish there, of course – at Easter, God affirmed this servant path of his beloved Son and raised him from the dead as the pioneer and fore-runner of many resurrections to come, including yours and mine.
Jesus died for us, has raised us in our baptism, and invited us to rule with him. He died for every one of us, for every member of St Petri, and some others – Lutherans in the Barossa mainly. Imagine the world ruled by Barossa Lutherans! Isn’t that true? No, of course not, Jesus died for every person of every human tribe, male and female, young and old, already passed away and yet to be born, and if you want to stretch your imagination a bit further, he died for the whole of creation, which groans even today as it waits for the final ”fulfilment of all righteousness”. This is a big story.
Incidentally, ruling with Jesus is not what we usually assume. If the king is a servant, what are the co-rulers? Do you think their function is to wield power and make rules? Perhaps it involves more stuff like washing feet, healing wounds, visiting people in need, bringing good news that resurrection is for all. I don’t have to spell it out – it involves being a servant, caring for others in all their needs as we find them in our path. As we love one another, we love Christ. As we reach out to those in need, we serve Christ. As we speak words of comfort and hope, we speak as Christ and connect people with Christ. We are one with the servant of all. None of us does this really well, I suspect, but what a vision for our lives, and for our life as a congregation.
A text which has remarkable echoes of this week’s readings is a part of Paul’s letter to the Christians in the Greek city of Philippi – chapter 2, the first 13 verses. It was our second reading this morning and is on the screen again. You may already be familiar with this text, and I hope you don’t mind if I pick up a few points from it again. At St Petri this year, we are going to spend a lot of time with this passage. It will be our text to begin meetings of Church Council and other committees, and of congregational meetings. We will dig into it, listen to it, ask God to speak to us through it, and in the process it will become our home base. This is the text we will return to again and again as we find we need guidance or encouragement or a deeper understanding. Our home, the place where we live. I encourage all of you to spend time with this beautiful passage in your private or family devotional times, or just as a daily or weekly or monthly exercise – you know what you can manage. You might be surprised at how this affects you.
Use a variety of versions of the Bible, if you have them, and just read the passage through and see what jumps out at you. No need for you to understand everything or to pick up everything in the text – it is very rich, and you will probably find new stuff there every time you read it. That has been my experience over the years.
It starts by asking whether members of the congregation could perhaps work together for the good of others – this is a key to living effectively with God, whose nature is servant. Hmmm. In fact, this is the mind of Christ!
Then Paul quotes a Christian hymn that was already old, that sets out the very heart of the Christian message – in some Bibles you will find it set out in lines, like a hymn. This is how the Early Church began to explore the theology of who and what Jesus of Nazareth was and is. They sang hymns and thought through the implications in the process. This ancient hymn is possibly the oldest composition of the Christian Church that we have, certainly long before the first document was written down. And it’s core business for any Christian – if you know this stuff, you know the Gospel.
He was God in every sense of the word, but glory was not his core value. He cared more about how we were managing, and became a human being, took on our own flesh, became one of us, and in the process emptied himself, if you think about it from a heavenly point of view! He took on the servant role (actually the Greek word literally means ‘slave’). This is the way God works, and this is what works. His humility and servant-hood were not cancelled, but completed by resurrection and ascension to glory, where he received the name above all names – the name of God himself.
But that’s not where it stops. Jesus didn’t simply return to where he came from, leaving us to mill about as best we can. The remaining verses remind us that we are part of God’s plan for the redemption of the entire universe. He is working in us and through us so that we achieve what he wants – and that is better than anything we could work out on our own. Incidentally, this whole new reality is described in the previous chapter (1:29) as a gift of grace to us. This is not something we have to drum up ourselves, but is something which God graciously gives us to do and be.
What would happen if this text shaped our lives and our life together over a whole year? Do you think it would get boring after you had read it 20 times? Or would you still be finding something new for yourself and for St Petri. Would you begin to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit in a new way? Could this be one way for us to listen to God more intently as we make this text our home?
A servant congregation working with their servant king to serve more effectively the community in which we have been placed. Not because we feel we have to, or to earn brownie points with God, or to make us feel better even, but because we really want to, and only if we really want to. In the process we become light in the world, reflecting the light that shines from the face of God’s Son. And we find it feels curiously like home. That’s God’s dream for us. That’s a dream worth reaching for, worth praying for.
Graham R. Harms